When I was a freshman, my Intro to Sociology professor began a lecture with the following question: “By a show of hands, how many of you agree with the statement ‘I am a feminist?’” In a room of over 100 students, only three hands went up. Mine wasn’t one of them.
I could blame it on being shy. He was the kind of professor who asked follow-up questions, and I was the kind of student who kept my mouth shut in big lectures. But the truth was, I had never really thought about it. As a recent graduate from an all-girls school, a school where the most serious gender issue that arose was a lack of viable prom dates, and as a new student at my top-choice university, I didn’t think sexism was part of my world. Feminism was for the truly marginalized, and feminists, as I imagined them, were women who quit shaving and burned their bras and swore off all men. That wasn’t me then, and it isn’t me now. But if asked the question again, I would raise my hand.
My definition of feminism has changed dramatically during my three years at Penn. Where it once seemed like a radical and outdated cause, feminism now seems to be based on common sense and central to my college experience. Today I am a feminist because I know that I deserve to be respected socially in the same way that I am in the classroom. I am a feminist because I attend a school where one fraternity votes on a “Whore of the Week” and another gives steak knives to girls who have had sex with several brothers. I am a feminist because of how often I hear a girl called a bitch, or a slut, or a cunt and how often it is directly to her face. I am a feminist because I have the inviolable right to say no to sex, and because in the last two months three Penn woman have reported losing that right.
In response to these cases, the Penn Consortium of Undergraduate Women and One-in-Four (an all-male sexual assault peer education group) hosted a Speakout against sexual violence before Thanksgiving Break. I was disheartened by the low attendance. Where were my friends? Where were sororities and women’s organizations? Where were school administrators and professors? Why, at a school of over 10,000 undergraduate students, could the entire group fit comfortably in the living room of the Women’s Center?
The only thing asked of members of the Penn community was to take a stand by showing up. I assumed that Locust Walk would be flooded with students, that even those who consider themselves apathetic towards gender issues on campus would feel the need to support such an undeniably important cause. But maybe the sociology class poll was a fair representation of attitudes towards women’s rights on campus. Until we can all raise our hands, or gather on the Compass, women at Penn will continue to be disrespected.